Four Portraits of a Marriage

A chamber opera for baritone and soprano

By Don Kay

Libretto by John Honey

Detached – Old Mercury Building, Macquarie Street

Shortly after the death of Don Kay’s wife Frances in July 2018, librettist John Honey conceived the idea of a thirty-minute work on the theme of the loss of a life partner and the grieving process. The composer subsequently completed Memento Mori for soprano, baritone and piano trio. In order to fill a program, Don adapted three other as yet unperformed pieces to expand the story of the relationship of the two protagonists. With director Roger Hodgman on board, the work Memento Mori 

– Four Portraits of a Marriage began to take shape.

The opera consists of twenty individual sections and lasts about one hour. Although the librettist claims that the work is not specifically about Don and Frances, it is difficult not to see the piece as a highly personal and brave depiction of the final stages of this loving relationship. The fact that an audience can closely identify with it in the context of universal themes of loss and bereavement gives the opera a depth and perception that is very moving. The four portraits comprise Songs of Reflection, The Danish Nurse, Domestic Proverbs, and Memento Mori. Don Kay’s score effectively contrasts declamatory and lyrical aspects while John Honey’s words are richly insightful and varied with moments of great pathos and leavening touches of wit.

Fortunately, all involved with the project gave of their considerable best. Roger Hodgman’s direction was tight and focused, with seamless transitions within the simple staging, and excellent lighting design by Jason James. Others involved with stage management and other visual effects all handled their tasks well. Both Douglas McNicol (baritone) and Christine Douglas (soprano) gave committed and fine-toned performances while mastering Don’s highly individual harmonies and conveying strong emotion in their roles. Vanessa Sharman, pianist and musical director, held everything together masterfully, with secure, confident work from Frances Davies (violin) and Sophie Radke (cello). Sharman’s knowledge of and familiarity with Don’s musical style was always in evidence. The final slow waltz (Phoenix Rise) with its canon for piano and cello provided a beautiful and cathartic resolution. Credit must go to Detached Cultural Organisation, Victorian Opera, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Ten Days on the Island, and composer Richard Mills for the considerable sponsorship and financial support to make this venture possible.